Author: Mykhailo Gonchar, President of the Center for Global Studies "Strategy XXI", the article was written for ZN.UA, where it was first published
It is surprising that none of the investigators of the case under the name of the "Ukrainian footprint" in the sabotage of the "Nord Streams" on September 26, 2022, thought to analyze the technical aspects, to begin with. After all, it is technical things and capabilities that determine success or failure in the organization and implementation of an unprecedented operation, which has no analogues in the history of underwater pipeline systems.
First of all, about the mathematical part
What is a gas pipeline, how is it laid and what is needed to destroy it? The pipe is made of special high-strength steel, the outer diameter is 1220 mm, the wall thickness is up to 41 mm. The pipe is concreted with a "shirt" made of crushed and compacted iron ore mixed with cement, 110 mm thick. It doesn't just lie like that on the bottom of the sea. For the purpose of unbreakable fixation and making it impossible for the underwater gas pipeline to float, it is covered with a good layer of sorted and unsorted stones from above.
Therefore, there is no direct access to the pipe itself, and given that the "Nord Stream 1" has been in operation for more than ten years, this means that bottom currents have added sand and silt to the rock embankment, compacting it. It is important to understand that a few dozens of kilograms of explosives, which (hypothetically) could be delivered by a group of saboteurs on their own, will not solve the issue of guaranteed detonation of the pipe.
The extent of damage to the pipeline after the explosion can be imagined from the official report of the operator company: "The length of the section of the pipe destroyed as a result of the sabotage is about 250 meters... man-made craters with a depth of 3 to 5 meters were discovered on the seabed at a distance of about 248 m from each other. The section of the pipe between the craters is completely destroyed, the radius of scattering of the pipe fragments is at least 250 m." Imagine the force of the explosion, when the debris flies 250 m underwater, in a dense environment. Seismic stations in Denmark and Sweden recorded a bottom quake with a magnitude of 2.3 on the Richter scale. There are various estimates of the amount of explosives, but at least it is on the order of several hundred kilograms per explosive device.
All this means that a civilian, but properly equipped vessel with an on-board crane for cargo, with a specially trained crew, equipped with at least a remote-controlled device with a manipulator for carrying out underwater technical work, had to be involved in order to carry out the relevant preparatory work. In this way, vessels from the category of multi-functional emergency and rescue vessels of the type that served the construction of the "Nord Stream-2" (Bahtemir, Spasatel Karev) or some large-sized vessel were to be used. In addition, it is impossible to perform a set of preparatory works in one descent to the bottom in just one hour, and even more in three places.
Although the Baltic is not the Black Sea with a depth of more than two kilometers, it is also not the Sea of Azov with its 14 meters. The 80-100-meter depth of the NS-1 and NS-2 gas pipelines means that it will not be possible to work in light diving equipment. In addition, the water temperature in the bottom zone is approximately +5ºС. Moreover, in order to detonate explosives at depth, it is necessary to have a special detonator so that its detonation mechanism can be adjusted in a suitable way, withstand the bottom pressure for a certain time and work properly when the detonation signal is received.
Experienced specialists in special underwater technical work claim that, most likely, either a dry-type underwater mini-boat with manipulators, or at least a suitable remote-controlled underwater vehicle, was used during the preparatory work. All this equipment is specialized, it is not mass-produced, it is expensive, it is not sold in supermarkets, as well as waterproof explosives and detonators for it. The purchase of such equipment or its rental from someone by a "group of diving enthusiasts" would not have gone unnoticed by the many eyes and ears of Western and Russian intelligence and counterintelligence agencies.
Against this background, the plot of the German publication about a sailing (!) yacht with a skilled crew, which moves through the Baltic Sea, having approximately 1-1.5 tons of explosives on board, which was delivered by car in one of the German ports, looks comical. Before that, the car probably traveled somewhere in Europe. So, from a technical point of view, the version about the "Ukrainian footprint" is fantastic. In addition, it can be argued that this version does not seem real even without analyzing some specific aspects.
Seymour Hersh and the Russian trace of his investigation
No matter how strange it looks at first glance, Moscow did not like the version of a whole group of leading American and European publications about the "Ukrainian footprint". This is because they have their own "legend", which they started to push almost immediately after September 26, and on February 8 they added "doping" to it. It's about an American-Norwegian sabotage tandem from Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hersh. However, he clearly overdid it: in his investigation into the motives of the USA and Norway to destroy a Russian competitor for its gas supplies to Europe, Hersh eight times repeated the phrase about cheap Russian gas with a hint of expensive American and Norwegian gas. This is clearly too many for such a text and shows who is behind the main argument of the Kremlin's gas propaganda in the 21st century.
However, it is Hersh's version that is the main one for Russia. The Russian representative at the UN, Nebenzia, circulated it in an official letter addressed to the UN Secretary General dated February 16 with the demand to conduct an urgent investigation: "The results of the investigation of the American journalist Seymour Hersh, published on February 8, 2023, testify to the fact that the military of the United States of America and its Norwegian accomplices committed a criminal attack on three branches of the "Nord Stream-1 " and "Nord Stream-2 " gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea. Joe Biden's administration, which issued the illegal order, bears full responsibility...".
The factor of the 4th pipe and the Russian trace
Why did one pipe out of the four existing on both streams remain unexploded? This, in fact, is one of the key questions. If an explosive charge was placed there and it did not work, then it would have been found immediately, and if the investigation did not end with the finding of the "authors", then at least there would be a report about "an explosive device of unknown origin that did not work."
However, it is clear that there was no fourth explosive device. One pipe was deliberately left in a functional state. Who needed such a configuration — to blow up three pipes, leave one, and leave one pipe precisely NS-2, not NS-1?
Answer: to the one who gave the Germans a chance to "come to their senses" and who was going to "save" them in the abnormally cold winter of 2022/2023, telling the whole world how cold it will be in Europe and how people will freeze there without proper heating of their homes. In addition, in the event of a successful "saving of Europe" – to mock the Germans, saying that despite their obstructionism towards NS-2, it saved you. Moreover, as a gesture of "good will", to repair the pipes later. It will cost only some 500 million dollars, and Europe will again be warm and get cheap gas from "Gazprom". This is how the Kremlin's intention can be seen.
A parallel motive for sabotage is the intentional creation of an unpredictable situation for "Gazprom", i.e. when it is unable to fulfill its gas supply obligations due to force majeure. Believable "excuses" last summer about turbines that failed, the impossibility of repairing them due to Western sanctions, oil leaks, etc., no longer had an impact on European customers. Therefore, "Gazprom" risked receiving billion-dollar arbitration claims for breach of contracts. All its arguments were rejected in Europe at the official level. It is worth recalling that it was at the beginning of September 2022 that "Gazprom" stopped NS-1 allegedly for repair work, and three weeks later mysterious "force majeure" explosions occurred in the Baltic Sea. In this interval a special underwater operation was prepared.
In addition, again, the appearance of an oil tanker in this story indicates a Russian trace in sabotage.
The Minerva Julie tanker came to the attention of one of the Danish experts due to the fact that it maneuvered suspiciously for a long time shortly before the explosions just in the area of the sabotage. Of course, the owner company denied everything, saying that the tanker was just waiting for a new order.
This is an interesting episode, reminiscent of the incident of October 2014, when "suspicious underwater activity" and a radio communication session directed by a "beam" towards Kaliningrad were recorded off the coast of Sweden. The Swedes came to the conclusion that Russian espionage was taking place again, but the submarine crashed in Swedish waters. The search for the emergency mini-submarine was not successful, but then attention was drawn to the strange movements of two Russian vessels, namely the Liberian-flagged tanker NS Concord and the research vessel "Professor Logachev". They carried out maneuvering for a long time, uncharacteristic of commercial and research vessels. This prompted the experts to conclude that these vessels were rescuing a submarine mini-boat, which was carrying out a special task near the Swedish coast and had an accident. Most likely, the mini-submarine left the area under the bottom of a large vessel, or the tanker was previously converted into a carrier. Moreover, both the tanker and the research vessel had previously spent several months in repairs, which may be one of the confirmations of the version about the appropriate conversion to perform tasks unrelated to their normal use.
Therefore, the appearance of a tanker during the study of various aspects of sabotage on Putin's streams once again indirectly indicates that it is the Russians who are behind the authorship. The technology was developed by them in the Baltic. We will recall the opinion of specialists in underwater technical works that the implementation of sabotage of this level requires a mini-boat, with the help of which the necessary preparatory work can be carried out. It is also worth noting that the Minerva Julie tanker was on its way from Rotterdam and, after strange movements from September 6 to 12, 2022, eventually arrived in St. Petersburg. Even if this tanker was not converted into a mini-boat carrier, it served as a cover for its movements. However, then there would have to be another vessel somewhere that delivered and then picked up the mini-boat in case the tanker was not the carrier.
It also resonates with the information provided in November 2022 by the American satellite monitoring company under the name SpaceKnow about two "dark vessels" shortly before September 26 near the sabotage zone. They had their AIS detection transponders disabled, meaning they were trying to hide general information about themselves and their location.
Who benefits from all this?
It is worth recalling that at the end of last year, information appeared in the Western media with reference to "some Western leaders", "numerous officials", "23 diplomats and intelligence officers from nine countries" that a several-month investigation did not confirm the Russian authorship of sabotage, without specifying anyone else.
Indeed, why are there still no results of investigations in three countries? I assume that, in fact, in Western capitals, the leadership already knows who the "author of the script" and the doer of the special underwater operation is. However, making this public would require a strong response, and not just from Germany, Denmark and Sweden. And not only in the form of joint patrolling of the seas to counter reconnaissance ships of the Russian Federation near the shores of the EU, as was reported the other day. I assume that they do not want to make the results public, because it is better to have a "war in Ukraine" than a "war in Europe", as they imagine. After all, this will lead "to an escalation", "to a NATO war with Russia." That is why the legend about some "pro-Ukrainian group" with indulgence to the official authorities of Ukraine. Like, non-state actors are capable of incredible things in times of hybrid wars...
The "Ukrainian footprint" is an attempt by certain circles to show on documents that Russia, the United States, Europe and Britain were not involved in the sabotage: "Some of the initial assumptions of the United States and Europe focused on the possible guilt of Russia, especially given its skill in underwater operations, although it is not clear what motivation would the Kremlin have for blowing up the pipelines, given that they were an important source of revenue and a means for Moscow to exert influence in Europe... U.S. officials say they have not found any evidence of involvement by the Russian government in the attack ... U.S. officials said no American or British nationals were involved," wrote "The New York Times". In addition, it was reported that American intelligence failed to find evidence of Russian involvement in the incident. The British newspaper "The Times" reported on March 8 that in the West it was already known a week after the sabotage that it was not Russia or the USA behind it, but a private Ukrainian enterprise.
Although officials in both the US and European capitals disagreed with the "Ukrainian version", it seems that there is someone influential on both sides of the Atlantic who wants to play a zero-sum game with the Russians and start relations with a clean slate. It is not for nothing that the version about the "Ukrainian footprint" appeared simultaneously in a number of leading Western publications. This isn't just Seymour Hersh's hastily created blog the day before. Like, "Naftogaz", in Ukraine as a whole, had a motive to blow up gas pipelines: to preserve the transit of Russian gas. Completely in accordance with Putin's argumentation at the press conference on December 22, 2022.
The current message to Russia is something like this: we know everything, but we will not officially announce that the sabotage was organized under the auspices of the Main Directorate of Deep Sea Research of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, even if you stop blaming us. In addition, the investigation will never be able to definitively establish the authorship, and you will not insist on its continuation. If Russia agrees to such an approach, it will not pay substantial compensations and fines for the disruption of gas supplies to Europe (according to some estimates, they may total up to $35 billion, and to date lawsuits for $15 billion have already been filed) and will have a chance to restore gas relations on mutually beneficial terms. So that there are no new lawsuits, it is worth agreeing to sit down at the negotiating table with Ukraine.
However, at the same time, the media "Ukrainian footprint" is also a signal to Kyiv. Like, we don't see Ukraine's official involvement in sabotage now, but it may turn out that further investigation will find some evidence (a hint like the case with "Kolchugas" in 2002). On March 12, the American publication "Politico" again hinted at "points of tension" between Washington and Kyiv and called, among other things, "sabotage on the gas pipeline." Therefore, they say, it is better to sit down at the negotiating table with the Russians on a wide range of issues.
Of course, this is just my author's guess. I think that the coming weeks or months will show where the investigation in European capitals will lead, what Nebenzia will say at the UN, whether there will be new lawsuits against "Gazprom", and whether there will be any new cases of sudden deaths of certain figures on the Moscow chessboard.